November notes

Poor old November. It attracts such a bad press at times, given that on the face of it there is so little to recommend it by. Darkness wraps itself increasingly round each end of the day, the weather cools and deteriorates rapidly, gloom and fog descend oppressively and the leaves that so recently painted a pageant of autumn glory across the landscape now lie in a mucky slush. It’s little wonder that our ancient forebears, having brought in the last harvest and celebrated the end of the old year, saw this as a natural time of rest; there’s nothing but winter ahead, after all. I have to confess that after all the busyness and brightness of previous months, when a November day brings howling gales and lashing rain, I am happy to stay in the warmth of the house and turn my attention to cooking and crafting, studying, reading, making music . . . and yet, I can’t bring myself to write the month off completely when there is still so much to embrace and enjoy.

It’s not all grey and gloom!

For starters, October’s unusually mild and calm weather means the leaves are still very much on the trees and the main fall is yet to come; certainly, a more turbulent trend this week has brought a ripple of restlessness and more in the way of leaf dance, but it’s far from the sort of blast that that can strip the trees to bare bones overnight. The local countryside, heavily cloaked in deciduous woodland, is still full and beautiful and it’s a joy to be out and about wandering along the lanes from home, albeit at my current frustrating snail’s pace. Sunshine and warmth are wonderful but I’m not a fair weather walker, so I was encouraged to read a newspaper article this week extolling the virtues of walking in bad weather and all the benefits to physical and mental health that it can bring. I would most definitely agree, although with the caveat that setting off in dangerously high winds, thunderstorms or blizzards wouldn’t be anyone’s best idea! It’s so easy to find excuses not to venture out in bad weather and to hunker down in our ‘caves’ instead but I know that even a short walk in wind or rain, fog or frost will always make me feel better. It’s a great way to boost Vitamin D and immunity levels which are so important at this time of year and to release the endorphins that make us feel good ~ plus I always think there’s something incredibly life-affirming and smile-inducing about being outdoors and getting wet or wind-blown (or maybe I’m just a crazy woman?). Good clothes are key and one of the best things I ever bought was a a pair of waterproof trousers, light enough to fold into a deep coat pocket or rucksack and roomy enough to pull on over my trousers without being unduly baggy. I’ve had them for over 20 years now and they are still going strong, keeping me dry as dry on even the wettest of days. I’ve blown the cobwebs off my warm winter waterproof coat this week and dug out a woolly hat and gloves to keep me snug when the temperature starts to nip, so I’m all set. Let November do its worst . . .

A bright and breezy November afternoon . . . perfect for a wander.

I love my walking boots but I’m in a somewhat embarrassing situation that they and my wellies are the only waterproof winter boots I have at the moment. For 99% of the time that worries me not one jot as they are all I need but on the rare occasion I have to be semi-civilised somewhere, it leaves me with a bit of a problem. Six years ago, I bought a pair of green ankle boots which turned out to be the most comfortable footwear I’d ever owned; I practically lived in them and literally wore them to death. Earlier this year, in very wet weather, they simultaneously fell to pieces, leaving me with two soggy socks and a pair of boots beyond resuscitation by even the most talented of cobblers. On our recent UK trip, I called in at the Welsh country store where I bought them on the admittedly slim off-chance they were still available; no such luck ~ the manufacturer no longer makes that design ~ but it wasn’t the lack of replacement boots that left me feeling hollow. It was the 21st of October. We were greeted in the shop foyer by a life-sized model of Father Christmas and a large tree decorated in coloured fairy lights and in order to reach the footwear department, we had to pass aisles of Christmas items ~ mostly of the plastic, sparkly tat kind ~ and shelves piled high with over-packaged tiny amounts of festive foods at extortionate prices, the whole place heaving with eager shoppers. Regular readers will know that I am not exactly the world’s greatest fan of Christmas and its ingrained consumerism so a rant at some point in the year is inevitable, but for me this situation really took the (overpriced) biscuit. Outside, nature was putting on a dazzling display: it was blissfully mild, the sky was blue and the sun was illuminating the landscape in a bright fire of seasonal beauty, the sort of stunning day that makes me glad to be alive and desperate to be outdoors. Yet, looking around at the other customers all piling their baskets high with purchases, I wondered if we were the only ones to have noticed. I know and accept that we’re all different, and that shopping and Christmas both bring much pleasure to many people; it’s not for me to preach and indeed, I agree with author Isabel Losada that as an environmentalist, it’s better to ditch the soapbox and focus on making meaningful changes to my own life in an optimistic and joyful way rather than being a crabby, outspoken critic. My point here is the degree of sadness I felt that the accumulation of so much artificial ‘stuff’ for an occasion over two months away was taking obvious precedence over the seasonal gifts of the moment. You might not agree (and that’s fine) but I think it’s a terrible shame.

Okay, so maybe a little indulgent soapbox moment coming up because what struck me about the shopping behaviour was that it wasn’t so much presents that were being chosen but rather piles and piles of decorations, most of which I didn’t even know existed yet alone thought I needed. This had me wondering how much tinsel a person needs to buy in a lifetime? Perhaps we were strange, but in the days when we had children at home and a tree to decorate, our family tradition always began with fetching a dusty box of decorations from the attic and rummaging through to rediscover all the little treasures it held, year after year. Many of the bits and pieces were homemade and a bit moth-eaten if I’m honest but there was never any question of replacing them. Other things were faintly ridiculous, such as the fat robin which refused to perch politely on the tree and repeatedly ended up hanging upside down from a branch before nosediving to the floor in a shower of pine needles. Christmas just wouldn’t have been the same without it. It was quite an eye opener, then, to be told by one of my pupils that her family bought new decorations every year because they chose a different colour scheme ~ that particular Christmas was going to be white and purple, starting with a white artificial tree festooned in purple tinsel and baubles and spreading through the entire house and across the festive dinner table. Save me from this madness, please. The clothing industry thrives on perceived obsolescence (I mean, who in their right mind would want to buy the same kind of boots they bought six years ago?) but when it filters through to Christmas and other festivals and celebrations, I do start to lose my hope for the future of the planet. How much plastic rubbish was generated for Hallowe’en last week, I wonder? How many of those decorations being bought were truly needed? What about the so-called cost of living crisis? Whether late December’s celebration is about the birth of a Son in a stable, the rebirth of the Sun at midwinter or simply a jolly old secular knees-up with friends and family, I fail to see how all this dubious, artificial frippery is necessary or relevant. Purple Christmas? No thanks, I think I’d rather have dull November with its honest grey gloom!

To prove that I’m not a complete humbug, I’ve been making mincemeat this week, a task I always enjoy. Mince pies are our one festive essential and I like to give the mincemeat a month or so to mature before baking the first batch to celebrate my birthday in early December (this is strictly for quality control purposes, of course 😆 ). My recipe is ever-changing depending on what we have to hand so for instance, last year we still had Asturian walnuts in store but this year I’ve used chestnuts from the garden instead. Mincemeat is the easiest thing on earth to make but I like to complicate it a tad by making my own candied peel first and I was astounded to realise that the oranges and lemons were the first fruit I’d bought since a crate of peaches and apricots when Sarah and her family came to stay in July. I never imagined that we could come even close to being self-sufficient in fruit, especially given how much I like to eat it, but on reflection we really haven’t done too badly at all this year. We’ve enjoyed rhubarb (well, I did!), cherries, gooseberries, strawberries, redcurrants, blackcurrants, blackberries, whimberries (foraged locally), melons, grapes, pears, apples and figs, some in modest amounts and others in gluts that allowed us to preserve stores for future use. I’m very encouraged by this, especially as things should get better each year, as our young trees start to fruit and new additions to the fruit list become established. The pathetic bare-rooted twigs I potted up last winter have flourished into healthy, robust honeyberry, gojiberry, yellow raspberry and jostaberry plants; the blackcurrant seedlings lifted last year and nurtured through a tough summer are promising great things next season; relocating raspberry canes and a young grapevine should encourage better crops, as will cutting back hedging around a mature vine and fig tree to let in more light, air and sunshine. I have seeds to grow Cape gooseberries in the spring and plenty of strawberry runners to spread around the patch; I haven’t made proper use of elderberries, rosehips and sloes this year but hopefully a fully fit back will allow me to do that next autumn. Some cooler days this week have meant we could light the stove without cooking ourselves and this has seen a mad scramble to dry as many apple rings as we can; our apples aren’t keepers and even the handpicked ones are fading fast so speed is of the essence. I’m also experimenting with making scrap apple cider (thanks to Marita for this idea in her wonderful blog) and if it’s successful, then I’m planning to turn some of it into fire cider. Let’s see what happens . . .

Chopped apples, filtered water and lots of lovely microbes to do the work . . . what could be simpler?

Roger also has a fermentation experiment going on, one of those totally unplanned things that seem to be a regular feature of our life. He has been busy with lots of outdoor projects this week, including planting a serpentine Hügel bed with grass and wildflowers to make a screen and ‘living’ seat next to the pond. We packed all sorts of organic matter into the bed last year and obviously a stray Jerusalem artichoke was in the mix somewhere, a single unexpected plant that yielded several kilos of creamy tubers when Roger pulled it out a few days ago. They are such a great food, so versatile in the kitchen and packed with prebiotic goodies, but we’ve never tried fermenting them so cue a bubbling jar of grated artichoke mixed with horseradish and chilli ~ possibly a serious blow-your-socks-off experience to come, but these things have to be done. Meanwhile, back at the pond and at long last it is filling with water; considering the liner went down in April, it has certainly taken some time. It’s not completely full yet but we can at least see how the levels fall now and where we are going to need some extra turfs to cover the exposed liner. We’ve planted marshmallow and purple loosestrife grown from seed around the edges so next we need to add some pond plants, starting with a yellow flag iris rescued from our ditch and currently living in a bucket. It all looks a bit stark at the moment but give it a year and it should be transformed into an abundant habitat for a wide range of wildlife; it’s already teeming with great diving beetles, water boatmen and pond skaters, living proof that if we provide the right sort of conditions, nature soon rushes in with the rest.

Roger has also made a good start on the next phase of hedge sorting and laying, one of our biggest projects for this time of year. He has been making informal ‘dead hedges’ with the brush in various places but I particularly like the brush dome he has created; these are such great wildlife habitats and a big part of me is hoping that little hedgehog is tucked up safe and snug deep inside.

Joël has been cracking on with his work in the barn, producing an ever-growing heap of stones and a pile of dry earth which was packed round them in the traditional way of building here. As ‘make no waste’ is one of our defining principles, Roger has been using both to create a feature that reminds me a little of an Andy Goldsworthy sheepfold, a circular drystone wall packed with layers of organic matter including that packed earth. Our plan is to fetch a large quartz rock from the quarry in the coppice to stand in the centre, then surround it with native wildflowers at the entrance to what will eventually be a small woodland. Our garden needs to be a productive, practical and sustainable ecosystem but that doesn’t mean it has to be totally utilitarian and a few quirky features here and there that raise eyebrows or smiles are all part of the fun.

As the dark evenings tighten their grip, my mind naturally turns to all things woolly and since knitting and spinning are out of the question until I can sit properly upright again, crochet is my current craft of choice. I’ve finished the ‘Harmony’ blanket at long last, it must have been the most drawn-out project ever, but I’m pleased with the final result and I’m planning to team it with the ripple ‘Cottage’ blanket (which is a similar palette of colours) as pretty bedcovers in the family guestroom we’re in the throes of creating.

While I was working the border, I found myself mulling over the possibility of a new blanket project, something smaller and bulkier which can live on the sofa for those times in winter when a little bit of extra cosiness is required. I fancied working with soft earthy tones to complement the colours in our sitting room ~ predominantly cream, terracotta and sea green ~ in another patchwork of squares but with a more limited colour palette than the ‘Harmony’ blanket. As my ideas started to take shape, I realised I hadn’t checked the ever-inspirational Attic 24 website for months and quite unbelievably, I discovered that Lucy was launching her new ‘Fireside’ blanket, which couldn’t have been closer to my thoughts if she’d tried, on that very same day. Talk about serendipity! Much as I enjoy the process of design and colour selection, I don’t see the point in reinventing the wheel so I jumped straight in and ordered a pack. It seems like ages since I embarked on a new blanket project and looking back, I see it was this time last year when I started a cotton rainbow blanket for the arrival of our new baby grandson Celyn (his name means ‘holly’ in Welsh and I love that). There is something so joyful about the anticipation of being creative with such gorgeous colours: I couldn’t wait to start.

The squares themselves are a simple enough design but the pattern is a little complicated and has to be worked in a specific order ~ no chance of going off-piste with this one! It’s unusual in that it mixes large and small squares which is a new one for me but I already love how it looks and feels. It’s not going to be a rushed job but I already find myself torn between wanting the pleasure of the crafting to last as long as possible and the desire to have the blanket finished and ready for use. Mind you, we do have two sofas . . . 😉 The evenings might be long and dark but mine are filled with colour: who says November has to be dull?